The Kaplan Blog brings to the web a small portion of the material which will be used in the second volume of Communings of the Spirit: the Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan edited and with introductory material by Dr. Mel Scult. Dr. Scult is providing us with a unique opportunity to look over his shoulder, so to speak, as he interacts and compiles the material for the next volume.
According to Jewish tradition, Jews are instructed to count the days of the "omer" -- the barley sheaf -- until the fiftieth day, which is when the first barley crop would be harvested. The fiftieth day is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot when, the rabbis tell us, Jews received Torah at Mt. Sinai. During the Omer period, reading Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) -- the most popular and accessible part of the Talmud -- is also a traditional part of these seven weeks. Pirke Avot is a source of ethical teachings codified around the year 200 C.E.
In 2005, Shavuot also corresponded with the 50th birthday of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. To celebrate our 50th birthday, JRF invited everyone to share in the study of Pirke Avot together. Reconstructionist Rabbis and educators presented three Mishnayot (sections) from one perek (chapter) of Pirke Avot on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of each week.
The teachings were:
Chapter Date Teachers
1 May 2, 2005 Rabbis Fredi Cooper, Jeffrey Eisenstat, Shai Gluskin
2 May 9, 2005 Deborah Eisenbach-Budner
3 May 16, 2005 Rabbis Shawn Zevit and Fredi Cooper
4 May 23, 2005 Rabbi Richard Hirsh
5 May 30, 2005 Rabbi Steve Segar
6 June 6, 2005 Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer
See http://188.8.131.52/pirke-avot/index.html for more information.
In an article in the Jerusalem Post this week, entitled What Jews Believe, Andrew Silow Caroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, posed a question to four rabbi frends that was directed to Republican presidential candidates by an audience member holding up a Bible at their debate: "Do you believe every word of this book? And I mean specifically this book that I'm holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?" read more »
Among Caroll's rabbinic respondents was Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Read his reply.
Below you'll find a selection which reveals another place in the Kaplan diary where he discusses the problem of evil and the way to cope with it. I noted in the previous selection dealing with Kaplan's reactions to the play on the Diary of Anne Frank that Kaplan's impulse is to always focus on ways to cope with suffering even if we cannot explain it. Here he comments on a sermon by his most brilliant disciple, Rabbi Milton Steinberg. read more »
It was in the middle of the war and Steinberg gave a sermon on Thanksgiving that was astounding to say the least. Steinberg mentions the rabbinic dictum that we should bless the evil along with the good and applies this to the War. Neither Steinberg nor Kaplan knew the full extent of the Holocaust but they knew enough to make the reaction here all the more surprising and provocative.
Last night I went with my granddaughter Miriam to see the play Anne Frank. I thought it was marvelously well done, from every standpoint, but it left me extremely depressed. It embittered me against mankind for having made it possible for such a cold-blooded, calculating demonic crime to be perpetrated against millions of innocent men, women, and children to be enacted, and what is worse, to be erased from the conscience—if that crime made the least impression on it.
If the expression, "the written and oral Torahs are the words of God delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai" cannot be read literally, then what does it mean? I believe the Rabbis of the Talmud are pronouncing the deepest respect possible for the received tradition.
One of the reasons that the language of reverence needed to be so powerful was precisely because of the radical innovations which the Rabbis themselves were facilitating in the development of Jewish law. The Rabbis were masterful agents of change.
The claim that sacred texts were written by human beings, not God, is most commonly thought of as serving a secular agenda.
For me, acknowledging the human hand that touches sacred texts strengthens my religious tendencies and feelings.
The Summer 2007 issue of JRF's magazine, Reconstructionism Today (RT) - "a voice for creative Jewish living" - is now online. This issue will not be mailed as we experiment with a new way of publishing that we hope will have many benefits.
Every time I preach a sermon, the substance of which I had given to the men in the sermon seminar, I realize how much more difficult it is to speak from the pulpit than to teach in class. The more important the idea expounded, the greater the difference in the amount of care that has to be given to the development and illustration of it. read more »
When I had distributed to the men at the sermon seminar the outline on How to Seek God, I was sure that I could give a repeat performance of it from the S.A.J. pulpit on Rosh Hashanah, without giving it any more thought.
The problem of Judaism would not be so acute if the traditional doctrine of revelation were merely obsolete. The trouble is that to cherish that doctrine is as unethical as being guilty of bigamy. To believe that we are in possession of the authentically revealed will of God is incompatible with religious tolerance to say nothing of religious equality. read more »
[Kaplan biographer Mel Scult writes: Kaplan was truly a revolutionary and I would like to maintain that we have not yet begun to understand the radical nature of his theological commitments. The central event of Sinai which we celebrate on Shavuot is not reinterpreted here or put into language that is more acceptable to us. It is rather dismissed as unethical because it assumes the existence of some eternal truth, a doctrine that Kaplan dismisses. Many moderns are in the same situation but they refuse to face it squarely and to see our situation for what it is.
Our tradition instructs us: From the day you bring the sheaf of wave-offering, you shall keep count until seven full weeks have taken place. This is the time of counting. From the second night of Passover until Shavuot—the time of receiving the Torah, we count, day after day for 49 days. Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer. read more »
The Omer is not one of the most widely observed Jewish practices, yet I think it is one of the most profound and meaningful. There is something about taking some time in the darkness of the evening to mark the passing of time that resonates powerfully. It is an opportunity to bring a consciousness to our transition from our being avdei Pharoah—servants of Pharoah—to avdei Hashem —servants of a Higher Power.
I am entirely unequal to giving anything like adequate expression to the feelings that well up in my heart at the thought that the war in Europe is at an end. If only it were like waking up from a terrible nightmare! read more »
But unfortunately the unspeakable atrocities committed by the insane murderers are too real to disappear with the break of the dawn, and the living victims of the war are too much part of our own lives to be forgotten.
Audio and written versions of the speech and Rabbi Potemkin's introduction are available. A one-paragraph excerpt is also provided.
Rabbi Spitzer has received much attention as the first gay or lesbian head of a rabbinical association. She meakes reference to this attention in speech, welcoming it.
Reconstructionism Today's latest issue (Winter, 2007) is now available online and is attached to this post. Detailed coverage of the JRF convention held in November is included. The full texts of talks given by Rabbis Richard Hirsh, Toba Spitzer, Michael Strassfeld and Lester Bronstein are printed in the volume.
Other articles of note include Reconsidering Reconstructionist Liturgy by Dan Cedarbaum and Art Goes to Shul by RT editor Lisa Tuttle.
Monday July 13, 1936 read more »
The main difficulty in effecting the transition from the anthropomorphic to a rational conception of God could be overcome, it seems to me, by the following approach: accustom yourself to the thought that the reality of God cannot be grasped by any effort at visualization.
January 29, 1935 read more »
How little the Seminary authorities have any idea of the religious unrest among the very men who are studying for the rabbinate! Could they imagine for a moment that in a class at the Seminary there could go on the kind of discussion that went on during the hour in Homiletics this afternoon. In discussing the outline I had given them on "Humanism is not enough" I was bombarded with questions as to why I insist upon retaining the name of God in the ethical pattern of thought. The usual arguments about the misconceptions in the minds of those who hear it used were advanced with a great deal of clarity and force by the best men in the class.
A speech delivered by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer at the 2006 Reconstructionist Rabbinical Convention has just been added to the JRF Resources database.
Here is a brief quote from the speech.
Reconstructionism teaches that each of our civilizations is not in its essence either peaceful or dangerous. In its essence each is the product of centuries of history and changing still. The truth is that our own civilization is made up of strands of ideas some of which are light and some of which are very dark. This idea is sobering, liberating and ultimately hopeful. It means being honest and also, sometimes, courageous in naming what is problematic.
Related reading can be found in the four speeches (text and audio available) of the plenary of the November, 2006 JRF Convention.
[Though Reconstructionist Jews aren't famous for attesting to miracles, I don't know how else to describe this: Mordecai Kaplan has registered at this web site and posted an article. Wow! :> Dr. Mel Scult, Kaplan's biographer, has already posted a comment. Ed.]
January 22, 1939.
It seems to be that unless we can identify some basis for faith within accessible experience of the average person, life is bound to lose all worth and meaning. read more »
The fact is that before a person can have faith in human life as a whole he must first have faith in himself. We put the cart before the horse if we want to find reason for faith in mankind before we have cultivated any genuine ground for faith in ourselves. The problem of faith can be met only if we go about it the other way around. If upon looking into our own souls we become aware of something in us which, if universalized, would render life as a whole worthwhile, then we cannot be mistaken. The only thing of which that can be true is love and good will.
The opening plenum of JRF's 41st Convention was called Reconstructionism for the 21st Century: Aspirations, Expectations and Innovations. Below are the talks delivered by the four rabbis on the plenum. Text and audio versions are available for each presentation.read more »